Shirley Wang’s grandfather fled the Communist Revolution in China, and the lesson he learned has been a guiding light for her family: “He realized that one could lose his or her possessions, home, and even country or family members. But the one thing no one can take away from you is your education.”
The path Wang’s grandmother and mother blazed before her may serve as even more of an inspiration for her ascent to becoming founder and CEO of Plastpro Inc., Chair of The UCLA Foundation board, and also a well-regarded philanthropist.
“I think my mother loves me too much and believes in me too much. She always thought I could do whatever I wanted, despite coming from a Chinese background, which is very patriarchal,” Wang said.
Wang’s grandfather sent her mother to America for an education. Her grandmother, however, was married at 16, which was the custom – but that didn’t hold her back. “She didn’t have a phenomenal education, but she still amazes me today,” Wang noted of her grandmother, who helped start family businesses globally, in both Brazil and South Africa.
“My mother and grandmother lived in a patriarchal society. Everything is given to the sons, even to this day. The women didn’t receive a single thing … yet they still grinded away and worked hard. You aren’t just born with this stuff, you have to make it with what you’ve got.”
Enter public education, and UCLA specifically. Wang’s mother moved to Taiwan after receiving her education abroad, where Wang herself lived for about a decade. Her mother wanted her daughter to receive similar educational opportunities, and she wanted her to be close to her son who was attending CSU Northridge. So, Wang ended up becoming a Bruin.
“What I loved about UCLA is that there were so many opportunities,” said Wang, adding that her favorite was selling advertising at the Daily Bruin. “Just walk down Bruin Walk and there were so many things to be involved in. Even if you didn’t go to class, but signed up for everything that was happening on campus, you’d be busy all day long. And that’s what is so great about UCLA.”
Wang was a Pell Grant recipient, and she is forthright on the importance of that award, coupled with the opportunities given in public higher education. “I think education is what gives social mobility, that’s my biggest reason [for giving back to UCLA]. It really raises the bar for every single human being both intellectually and financially.” The level playing field of public higher education gives everyone a chance to compete, she added.
When her time was up at UCLA, Wang went into advertising, then on to Columbia Business School to earn an MBA. Her subsequent job in finance at Citibank failed to ignite a passion.
It was then, when her husband’s family wanted to enter into the door business, that Wang’s career took off. “I’ll do it, please!” she recalled with a chuckle. “I didn’t know anything about doors, so I cold-called everyone to get any information I could. It was kind of tough. It is an old boys’ club. I’m probably the only Asian woman, even today, in this business. But you have to keep knocking on doors and thinking you can do it.”
Wang noted she never expected to fall in love so fast. When she graduated from UCLA, her friends thought she’d be the last to get married, and so did she — there was a plan mapped out in her head of what she was going to do at age 22, 24, 28, and so on.
“And then it turns out, I graduate, go back to Taiwan, meet him (her husband Walter) two weeks later, and get engaged in six months,” Wang said. “I was the first one to get married out of all my friends.”
“You have your own plans, and God just laughs at them.”
Years of success followed.
But then God was laughing again because doctors told the couple just 13 years after being married that Walter only had a small chance of surviving cancer. The couple disagreed. “I think you make your own life the way you want to make it,” Wang said. “And I thought, we’re not going to look at statistics, that’s all based on past history. We can be the ones to make those statistics new, we can be the outliers.”
Walter beat his cancer. And the couple decided to use the newfound levity in their lives to help like never before. “We truly realized that life is short. And it’s amazing to be alive. It’s an ordinary miracle,” Wang said. “Who says the world won’t explode in the next few seconds, right? We should really appreciate the miracles we have and the ones we love, and work to make a difference in this world. We only have this time, so what are we going to do with it? Hopefully, we can make it better for the next generation.”
The Wangs have been lauded for their support of Habitat for Humanity and Doctors Without Borders, as well as for funding surgical needs for underprivileged children and pro bono services for domestic violence survivors, to name just a few causes. Currently, Walter is working on global clean water issues.
And, of course, the Wangs have set their sights firmly on higher education. After years away in New Jersey, Wang is back in Los Angeles where she was named the Chair of The UCLA Foundation Board. “In my heart, I think I really grew up at UCLA. And now it’s right where I live, and I believe in helping and volunteering in the community you live in, so it’s wonderful that UCLA is right in my backyard.”
The couple founded the Shirley and Walter Wang Scholarship in Computer Science and endowed a professorship in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center for a national program focused on U.S.-China relations. They have also donated $1 million to establish an endowment to support students from middle-income families and for students studying abroad.
Wang seeks to use her business acumen and experience in the political and civic engagement realm. “I think it’s always about people-to-people interactions, whether in sales or trying to get anything done.”
She has visited Capitol Hill for tort reform advocacy, and she is looking to leverage her contacts, and her contacts’ contacts, on behalf of higher education. “I think The Foundation, all of us, probably know a senator or a congressman. And we can probably get a meeting. Then, it’s about telling our story and letting them know our point of view.”
The story about Pell Grants that Shirley likes to talk about is the hope that students leave college debt-free so they are more likely to take on public sector jobs. “Pell Grants allow students to seek jobs not simply based on financial considerations, but based on what they are passionate about and what their hearts tell them they want to pursue.”
Wang thinks there are worthy political causes, provided upcoming advocates don’t get caught in the political muck. “What I fear about politics is people just voting or advocating because they are on one side or another. I want politicians to vote and advocate for what is right.”